Monday, August 16, 2004

The king is still gone

Years ago, the late Lewis Grizzard wrote a humorous little book called "Elvis is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself."

I think about that title every time Aug. 16 rolls around.

Presley died, of a heart attack brought on by prescription drug abuse, on this date in 1977. He was 42. Overweight, lonely, missing his mother --- one speculates that the final days of Presley's life were not happy ones.

Most fans only remember Presley for the silly 50s ditties that brought him fame. Which is fine, but he had better songs --- one's that capture a bit more of his soul, of who he was as a human being.

Take the majestic "You Gave Me A Mountain," a song written by Marty Robbins that Elvis took to singing in personal appearances in the mid-1970s. It was obviously a reference to his 1973 divorce to his wife, Priscilla. When Presley nails the final note of the song, one suspects he knows what he is singing about.

Presley's hurting. And he doesn't care who knows it.

The theme began to dominate his material, evidenced by the sudden appearance of songs like "What Now, My Love," "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues" and "It's Midnight" into Presley's act. No one, not Linda Thompson, not Ginger Alden and certainly not the so-called Memphis Mafia, could fill the void left behind by his wife's departure.

Elvis sought solace in pills and pancakes. We were robbed of a true poetic voice as a result.

Although I've been known to dawn a jeweled jumpsuit and sing "Promised Land" on occasion, I've often felt distanced from the throng who regularly trek to Graceland each year to hwave candles at Presley's grave. I'll leave such worship to others.

I'd rather dig out the bootleg CD of Presley's final show of the August 1974 engagement at the Hilton Hotel in Las Vegas ("The Desert Storm") and listen to him sing about lonely midnights and mountains he can not climb.

Or hear him recite the lyrics to Bread's underrated hit "Aubrey" while backup singer Sherrill Nielsen delivers the most haunting version of a ballad I have ever heard.

(That song boasts one of the most poetic verses to ever appear in a pop song. "I never knew her/but I loved her just the same/I loved her name," it says. And then a bit later: "And I'd go million times around the world just to say/she had been mine for a day.")

Or wince when he threatens and curses Hilton hotel staff for spreading a rumor he was "strung out" on heroin.

The moment is funny. It is also a little tragic.

So here it is 27 years later and the king is still gone. I think it hurts because part of Southern culture, heck, part of America, died with him.

Presley was the first pop superstar. And he was also virtually the only so-called "rock star" (he would have hated that term) who sang "How Great Thou Art" at his concerts and introduced his father during the show.

His fans remember him because he represents everything we wanted to be. And because he represents everything we were, or would have liked to have been.

Hail, hail, rock and roll.

Baseball's secret revealed

ATLANTA, Aug. 14 - The secret has finally been revealed.

Here at Turner Field, on a beautiful afternoon tailor made for baseball, the red hot Atlanta Braves outslugged the Major League leading St. Louis Cardinals 9-7, in a game that proved to be something of a well stocked smorgasbord.

There were plenty of home runs (six), 11 different pitchers, two hit batters, three arguments at home plate and a seesaw scoring struggle, something for everybody. Add to that a mild late summer afternoon filled with hues of blue and green, the recipe created a fleeting three hours of heaven on earth for those who love this grand game.

Walking through the parking lot that once was Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, one could sense that the afternoon was going to be special. Near what used to be home plate at the Braves' old park, a father and son were playing catch.

"Here it comes," the father said as the son prepared to receive the ball. They tossed the ball back and forth, engaging in a ritual that has been studied by sociologists, glorified by filmmakers and lamented by poets. The boy's eyes were glowing as he chased down the ball; his father was clearly amused at his son's happiness.

The Cards gained the early lead on a first inning two run blast by first baseman Albert Pujols and a fan down the way wondered whether Braves starting pitcher Russ Ortiz wasn't about to break his heart.

"This happens every time I see a game on the road," he sighed. "Last time I was here was for the Peach Bowl and I saw a loss, then, too."

But in a brief moment, as is often the case in this game, the plot turned on home runs by Chipper and Andruw Jones that put the Braves ahead. Ortiz and Cardinals pitcher Jason Marquis, himself a former Braves player, both struggled throughout the game, leaving the outcome in doubt. The Braves' lead widened, then shrunk as Pujols hit another one out of the park three innings later.

By the seventh inning, the Redbirds had a 7-6 lead and appeared to be well on the way to yet another win. The Cards have played exceptionally well all season and will be the team to beat in the playoffs this fall.

But disappointment was simply not meant to be on this near perfect day, as the Braves lit up Cardinals reliever Julian Tavarez in the bottom of the seventh, pushing across three runs to take the lead for good. Braves manager Bobby Cox summoned closer John Smoltz with two outs in the eighth inning, wanting desperately to earn a win against a team that relatively speaking does not lose.

Smoltz strutted onto the field, like a maestro entering the orchestra pit, as Braves partisans welcomed him with a standing ovation. Smoltz's confidence spread throughout the stadium with each advancing step.

By the time he got to the mound, the place was abuzz with electricity. A crowd that had endured the leisurely pace of the three plus hour affair was ready for a dramatic climax.

Cardinals outfielder Jim Edmonds watched a Smoltz fastball pass by like a house on the side of the road and the Braves partisans exploded. Smelling blood, they were itching for the kill when Smoltz quickly struck out Edgar Renteria and got Reggie Sanders to fly out to start the ninth.

Pinch hitter Marlon Anderson approached the plate as the screaming crowd rose to its feet. He fouled off eight or nine pitches, frustrating those who wanted the darn thing over and keeping the Cardinals' hopes alive for a few fleeting moments. Not having a clock to work, Smoltz had to secure the win the old fashioned way --- by earning it.

Anderson blasted a pitch to right field. Cardinals fans leapt to their feet, only to see the ball hook foul to the right. Smoltz leaned back and gave it all he had. Anderson swung, desperately, realizing the end was at hand. The ball trickled just out of the infield into the waiting glove of first baseman Julio Franco, who tossed the ball to Smoltz, who beat Anderson to the bag.

It was over. Braves fans exploded in relief. The Cardinals faithful collectively shrugged its shoulders, taking solace no doubt in the insurmountable lead the team holds over the Chicago Cubs, its postseason future nearly secure.

Perhaps it is foolish to seek deeper meaning in something as trivial as sports. But in one half inning, the secret of this game's hypnotic attraction was, at long last, crystal clear.

Rarely in life does a person have the ability to hold onto the ball long enough to figuratively run out the clock in order to succeed. Sometimes it isn't even possible to step back and punt.

More often than not, one simply has to stare the batter down and say "Here is the best I got. If you can hit this, you are the better one."

Sometimes the batter watches stunned as the ball arrives in the catcher's mit at 96 miles per hour. Other times, the batter connects, sending the ball 400 feet, snatching victory from the tips of your fingers.

But sometimes the ball just tickles by, only to be snatched up by the friend standing behind you, who has all the while been watching your back.

The game, like life itself, can not be won alone.

Monday, August 09, 2004

Peaks and valleys

Thirty years ago today, Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign from office. Some in the country were glad to see him go. Others looked on in disbelief.

It was difficult not to think of that long ago defeat last week after covering a few local campaigns on Election Night (Aug. 5) here in Knox Vegas. Politicians are strange birds. By running for public office, they open themselves up to an extremely public success --- or an extremely public defeat. One can only speculate what that must do to a person's psyche.

Last week, Halls High teacher Tim Reeves and I sat quietly at Inskip Pool as the returns filed in for the 2nd district school board race. Patsy Vittetoe, a veteran educator in the Knox County School System, was running to replace outgoing board member Paul Kelley. She had the experience and the local contacts; her challenger, Indya Kincannon, a newcomer to the area, had youth and a background in budgets.

Surrounded by family, friends and members of her church, Vittetoe remained upbeat, even as returns begin signaling that her defeat was near. As twilight began to descend, Reeves and I quietly made our way to the door.

Vittetoe hugged Reeves, a longtime family friend. It was Reeves who couldn't fight back the tears.

"Thank you," she said, taking my hand. Thank you very much." She gave me a hug and was gone.

Peaks and valleys are an inevitable part of life. No one, not even those hated New York Yankees, can win all of the time. Winning, if it goes on long enough, becomes boring.

Losing is a bit more real and tends to create a situation in which a person is really tested. It is also often when a person's true character is revealed.

"For only if you've ever been in the deepest valley," Nixon said at his farewell thirty years ago, "can you ever know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain."

Think back, if you'll forgive the sports reference, to the early years of the New York Mets. They were an abysmal team, to be kind. That first year, 1962, they lost 120 games, still a modern day major league record. The sorry team even had a catcher for awhile who was ultimately traded for himself back to the Cleveland Indians.

And yet this horrible team, utterly dreadful in nearly every way, consistently drew more fans than the Yankees, who won the World Series in 1962.

Perhaps it is because, as the writer Roger Angell once said, there's much more losing in life than winning. And as painful as it is for this Atlanta Braves fan to admit, there is, in the end, much more Mets than Yankees in all of us.

And that is, after all, how is should be. Winning is wonderful. There is no greater high than experiencing a perfect ending to a perfect day.

But what makes such rare days so special is remembering the times when things didn't go perfectly for us, when the sun set on a day when all of one's dreams, it seems, were turned into ashes and scattered like toys around the yard.

Even Nixon redeemed himself in the end somewhat. By the time he passed away in 1994, he had become not only an elder statesman, but in the words of the late historian Stephen Ambrose, had become a beloved elder statesmen. Yet another comeback from the enigmatic Quaker from Yorba Linda, California.

He knew better than anyone that one can't get to the peak without first walking through the valley. And that sometimes you have to wait until the evening to see just how splendid the day has been.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

A brief word on friendship

After my initial post, I received a thought-provoking note from a friend on the subject of friendship. He's quoting one of my favorite television characters, Thomas Magnum, from the classic 1980s CBS-TV series, "Magnum, p.i." :

"The only thing you have to prove your worth [once you're gone]," Magnum said, " is the friends you leave behind."

How true that statement is.

I consider myself to be quite rich indeed, certainly not based on any monetary measure, but because of the wonderful friends who brighten my life.

I've been thinking this week as some of my dearest friends are what seems like a world away how much they really mean to me.

I only hope that I've been half as good a friend to all of my friends as they have been to me.

Perhaps the greatest crime one can commit is taking a friend, or anyone near and dear to the heart, for granted.

August, die she must

So a new month is here.

August has arrived and with it comes the ending of summer and the promise of fall --- colored leaves, football, cooler temperatures and yet another transition.

Once again it seems the summer has come and gone and I've somehow managed to miss it. Sad, isn't it, that we spend so much time hurrying about in our hectic lives that we rarely stop to smell the roses.

This has been a strange year for the grand old game of baseball. My favorite team, the Atlanta Braves, has managed to pull themselves out of an early season rut, marred by ineffective pitching and injuries, and now sit atop the NL East by a handful of games.

Regardless of what happens now, Braves manager Bobby Cox should be named NL Manager of the Year. He continues to expertly guide the Braves through the 162 games of the major league season, and is well on his way to garnering an unprecedented 13th consecutive division title. Not even the hated Yankees have ever done that.

This is a quiet week around the suburbs. Everybody's gone away --- I think most people have escaped to the beach or to the mountains for one last moment in the sun before summer passes for yet another year. How I envy them.

Several of my close friends have headed to Florida for the week, leaving me to face the end of summer alone. It's amazing as the days and weeks turn into years how much I realize I need my friends in my life. That can sometimes be an uncomfortable feeling --- realizing you aren't an island and that you need others in your life to bring joy and happiness.

Not that you don't want others in your life --- you just don't want to ever feel like you need them to the point of becoming a distraction. Funny how life works out that way.

So as summer begins to fade, my thoughts turn yet again to transitions: to the thing we all dread, but in the end the only thing that seems to remain: change.

Why is it we fear change so? Does anything, in the end, really ever stay constant? Even the stars in their courses eventually burn out.

Maybe that's why I enjoy baseball. It offers the illusion of consistency --- and I let it deceive me, year after year.